How a DIY Newsroom cuts through COVID chaos and puts communicators in the box seat as primary source
COVID-19 has taught us a bunch of stuff on how to cut through with our messaging in a time of crisis.
It has also shown us that, frankly, we need a new system for how we go about the business of professional communications.
In the best of times, communications is far from a perfect science. If anything, it resembles a dark art - one where the right solutions are never quite clear until delivery.
As early adopters of new technology, communicators are at the cutting edge. As such, we do a lot on the run, which also means we work in a state of perpetual befuddlement as we compete in the Attention Economy.
Amid the various models of content marketing, public relations, corporate affairs, digital and social marketing, and traditional PR and advertising, there is much grey.
Organisations can therefore waste time, money and effort as they seek the best way to connect with communities of interest and customers.
COVID has taught us the hard lesson of cutting to the chase - to zone on the fastest and most direct route to audiences.
COVID has shown that if we want to control our message then we need to build self-reliance
At the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) world conference hosted from Chicago in June 2020, guest speakers were asked to frame presentations around the “shift” they saw in communications.
I spoke about a new way called the DIY Newsroom, which as I reflect on it, has much to offer communicators in a world with scourges like COVID.
The DIY Newsroom reorganises resources and processes based on the principles and practices of newsrooms to produce powerful and strategic communications.
Why a newsroom? Simply, newsrooms are at the top of the content food chain. Content is their reason for being, and they are organised for the sort of chaos we have seen in 2020.
And why DIY? Well, COVID, again, has shown us that if we want to control our message we need to build self-reliance.
The DIY Newsroom is not so much about infrastructure and electronic gadgetry, although these are the physical features of a newsroom. Mostly, it is about developing a way of working.
I capture that in my SMART framework, which I created based on more than 30 years working in and studying newsrooms around the world.
The five SMART steps synthesise and systemise what some organisations already do:
There is devil in the detail, which I outline in my book, The DIY Newsroom.
But COVID-19 has given us a very personal crash course in certain aspects while revealing existing capabilities.
Here are five things we have collectively discovered during the pandemic aligned to the attributes of The DIY Newsroom:
1. A NEED FOR SPEED
To be a top gun communicator in a crisis with no playbook we have pushed our craft to the limit. Communications in 2020 has been high-octane and there has been no time for procrastination.
2. DIY IS THE WAY-2-GO
We have not had the usual on-site daily operational support around us, be it colleagues or third-party support. Congratulations, you earned a PhD in the Science of Self-reliance, learning to communicate from anywhere (often home) and anytime from your own resources.
3. WE HAVE THE SKILLS
This is more than creating a cool virtual background on Zoom. Many communication professionals have extended existing skills or learned new skills as workloads and requirements exploded. Some of us have even rethought our media ecosystems amid the tumult.
4. WE HAVE THE TOOLS AND TECH
Building your own DIY Newsroom does not cost big bucks. In The DIY Newsroom I outline the equipment you need to get your mojo on - mobile journalism. A cell phone and pre-set workflow means you can produce and deliver professional content in the field - like reporters do. You can also establish a high-functioning news studio that produces quality video and other products at low-cost - and do it from home.
5. WE HAVE THE MANDATE
Trustworthy and authoritative information. That is what communicators have been put on this earth to distribute. Many organisations, in these darkest of times, have turned to communication teams to help them stay connected with their audiences and customers. It is our time to shine.
COVID has put communicators in the box seat as the primary source for information
Local governments have embraced the concept of The DIY Newsroom. Councils in Australia, New Zealand and the UK have established their own media platforms to fill the vacuum left by traditional media.
Banks, health insurers, schools and universities, and big sport, have created their own sophisticated newsrooms to promote their products directly to audiences rather than rely on media they do not control (including social media) or old-school, hit-and-miss public relations.
Participants in my IABC workshop shared examples of similar outfits at hospitals and colleges in the United States and Canada.
A friend of mine runs the Australian arm of communications for a New Zealand aged care provider, Ryman Healthcare. With only a small team, Ryman epitomises the spirit of the DIY Newsroom and has developed its own little media empire. It produces 150 publications per year, and is managing a growing Facebook presence, and other marketing.
A newsroom approach can be applied in the public sector.
I have been helping the Australian Government in its response to COVID-19 in a particular community area.
When I began, the pandemic had taken its grip and you could smell the panic on the floor. But in a matter of weeks I saw this transform to positive action. Under the pressure of the crisis, the department prioritised objectives, swarmed skills and executed what needed to be done.
I saw an organisation that was willing to act, within the constraints of public service standards and values, in ways it had not before - similar to a newsroom.
This included moving with lightning speed. Clearances for communications, which even in the private sector might have once taken days or weeks, were volleyed back within hours, sometimes minutes. Communication plans were approved and implemented within days.
Imagine the longer-term benefits of embedding these attributes in our communications processes?
As exhausted as we are from a hellish year, we can be optimistic. Increasingly, people are looking for and trusting in information from their employers and the business community.
Edelman, the public relations firm that issues its much-anticipated Trust Barometer findings each year, asked workers in 10 countries what they thought were the most credible source of information about COVID-19.
Almost two-thirds responded they would believe information from their employer, ahead of that from government websites (58 per cent) and from traditional media (51 per cent).
That puts communicators in the box seat as the primary source for information.
What is happening generally in the Attention Economy along with the fallout from COVID-19 provides the impetus for a communications reboot.
For the journey ahead, though, we will need a new set of wheels, akin to an electric car - something that is resource friendly, can drive itself and has all the mod-cons.
That sums up The DIY Newsroom - a communications vehicle built for these previously unimaginable times.
DIY is the ultimate empowerment for communicators, doing it your way to be heard not herd.
* Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant and author of The DIY Newsroom. He is a member of the International Association of Business Communicators.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.